My Denon turntable came with the rebranded Audio-Technica AT3600 cartridge. While it was a decent performer, the cart is just plain low budget one so after a while I have decide to upgrade it. The AT3600 cart falls in the sub-$50 category and to get somewhat better performance, I knew I need to spend over $100. So I set my budget at $150. As always, I spent tons of time on YouTube watching video reviews, read countless forum posts and articles with recommendations. Sometimes, I wish the options were a lot more limited because you can fall into the infinite loop of “this item is better than this one”. At some point you either go way over your budget because “this little feature would be nice to have even though I just went 75% over my budget” or the reviews loop back when you realize your notes state that: “item A is better than item B; item B is better than item C; item C is better than item A”. 🙂 Anyway, after a few days I had the following contenders:
Sumiko Black Pearl
There was also recommendation for the LP Gear Vessel cart that retails for about $100 and some Grado carts. I have discounted the LP Gear cart because didn’t really know the company and didn’t consider Grado carts because I read that due to their construction and Denon’s unshielded motor, they may not work properly (buzz).
Out of my list the AT-VM95ML gets great reviews, has the micro-line stylus and 2-3 times the stylus life of the other cartridges. So even going $20 over my budget, this would be cheaper in the long term. The only problem is that I already had an entry level Audio-Technica plus the AT carts tend to be a bit on the bright side. I was looking for something neutral with warmish sound. My Magnepans definitely don’t need more treble and I am building preamp without tone controls so I wanted to get the sound just right by getting the hardware combination vs using the tone controls.
So the choice was left between the Sumiko and Nagaoka. There are some reviews praising the Nagaoka for the best cart in this price category and pretty much same amount of reviews praising the Sumiko line. Same with the negative reviews. I was about to pick the Sumiko Pearl which is only $20 more than Sumiko Black Pearl and still under my budget but then I have stumbled across an ad on the forum I belong to selling Nagaoka MP-110 brand new for less than the Sumiko Pearl. I took a chance and pulled the trigger.
The Nagaoka arrived few days later. I have installed it and did a listening session comparing it with the AT cart I already had. The Nagaoka is more than three times the price of the Audio-Technica so the difference is to be expected. I don’t know how bright the higher end AT-VM95xx carts are but the AT3600 is definitely way brighter than the Nagaoka. To the point that listening to a full album could get your ears fatigued. This could be the combination of my hardware and speakers but the difference is there. In my opinion, the MP-110 has a bit better mids and warmer lows though they are a bit slower than the AT3600. The truth is that the combination of less highs, better mids and warmer bass makes the Nagaoka cart a pleasure to listen to. The only minus that I have noticed is a narrow soundstage but I attribute this to the cart being brand new. According to the manufacturer, the cartridge needs about 30 hours of break in period so I will do another short review once I hit that point. Would I recommend this cart? Yes. Just keep in mind that other carts in this price range may be as good or better so if you come across a sale, just buy the cart you want. It is almost impossible to figure out if the phono cartridge will work well in your system unless you can listen to it in the same configuration at the store (and we have less and less of those). For me, if I installed the cart and didn’t like it, I could probably sell it for close to what I paid as a cart with 2 hours of use.